Secretary of Defense Speech

Remarks at the NORAD/NORTHCOM Change of Command


Well, good morning, everyone. And just look at this magnificent crowd. It makes me so proud to be here with you.

My friend, Minister Sajjan, General Cienfuegos, Admiral Soberón, Chairman Dunford, members of the NORAD and NORTHCOM team, friends and family, what an honor to be with you here today as we pass this critical command between two of our military's most accomplished leaders, Admiral William Gortney and General Lori Robinson.

Before I speak about the character and the contributions of these two extraordinary officers, I want to speak directly to you, to the men and women of these vital commands. In the center of our nation, you perform a mission at the center of everything we do as a department. Every day, you work across our military, across our governments, and with our closest neighbors to prepare for contingencies, to provide missile defense, keep our skies free from danger. 

And you're also responsible for keeping our most solemn commitment as a military, to provide our citizens here at home the security they need to dream their dreams, raise their children, live full lives.

Your missions here at NORAD and NORTHCOM are diverse, and challenges that you and the department face are many. In fact, today, we face no fewer than five major, immediate and evolving challenges - countering the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the vital Asia-Pacific region; strengthening our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea's nuclear provocations; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Persian Gulf, and accelerating the defeat of ISIL and its parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and everywhere else it's metastasizing around the world.

NORTHCOM plays a role in all of them, but this time, at this ceremony, I'd like to focus on the fifth challenge, the defeat of ISIL.  ISIL not only tyrannizes the populations where it arose in Iraq and Syria, but also attempts to spread its evil ideology elsewhere. It aspires to plot, or inspire attacks on Americans - including here at home.

Our strategy for the lasting defeat of ISIL, therefore, is built around and will surely accomplish three objectives. One, destroying ISIL's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria. And I say lasting defeat of ISIL, because when ISIL is defeated - and it will be - it must stay defeated.

This fact requires that we strengthen and enable with the vast power of the United States military and the international coalition arrayed with it, capable local forces, who can seize, hold and govern territory ISIL seized when it arose.

The Coalition is providing strong support for Iraqi Security Forces, under the control of Prime Minister Abadi, who have retaken the cities of Ramadi and Hit, and are making steady advances up the Euphrates River Valley.  In Northern Iraq, we're also supporting and enabling Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces as they begin operations to envelop Mosul, one of ISIL's two main power centers.

Meanwhile, in Syria, capable and motivated local forces there, supported by the Coalition, have retaken Tishrin Dam in the west and the town of Shaddadi in the east. In doing so, they've cut two significant lines of communication into ISIL's stronghold of Raqqa, and cut the main link from the city to ISIL's power center in Iraq, Mosul.

We're also pressuring ISIL in both Iraq and Syria by systematically eliminating their so-called cabinet. We've taken out their ministers of war and finance, captured one of the architects of ISIL's chemical warfare enterprise. And most recently, we killed the ISIL's military Emir for Anbar Province.  At the same time, we're continuing attacks on ISIL's economic infrastructure - from oil wells and trucks, to cash storage sites - putting a stranglehold on ISIL's ability to pay its fighters, finance its operations and attract new recruits.

In pursuit of ISIL's lasting defeat in Iraq and Syria, we have a clear plan of operations, which depends on enabling capable, local forces to collapse ISIL's control, especially in their two centers of power, Mosul and Raqqa.  Our accelerated campaign continues to gather strength as we support these local forces and find additional opportunities to hit ISIL in new ways.

We're also addressing ISIL's metastasis beyond Iraq and Syria, which is our second campaign objective. In Afghanistan, with new authorities and an added focus, we've been able to significantly degrade the group there. In Libya, we've undertaken successful strikes against a training camp and taken out ISIL's key leader of that country.  Whether in the Middle East, West Africa or south or southeast Asia or here in the homeland, we will counter ISIL and work with partners wherever ISIL has or tries to gain a foothold.

Now, achieving these first two objectives against ISIL is necessary, but it's not sufficient. We must at the same time protect the homeland. While there's no credible imminent threat, ISIL has made its intent clear, that they seek to plot or incite attacks in this country. Every day, our homeland security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are aggressively and skillfully working to prevent that from happening.  And I want to commend FBI Director Jim Comey, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and CIA Director John Brennan and others for all they're doing and for their impressive results.

Protecting the homeland requires vision and collaboration across these Departments and agencies, and to get to the point of this ceremony, DOD plays a vital supporting role. That's especially true at NORTHCOM, a Command which was established to support homeland defense in the aftermath of September 11.

DOD supports whole of government efforts to protect the homeland in three critical ways. First, we're disrupting ISIL's operations and ability to conduct external attacks from abroad. Next, we're disrupting the flow of foreign fighters both to and from Iraq and Syria. And next, we're investing resources to provide greater force projection to our troops here at home.

To take the first one, DOD is pursuing a systematic effort to disrupt ISIL's external operations by removing terrorists from the battlefield who are planning, directing or inspiring attacks against Americans. Just two weeks ago in Mosul, we killed Neil Prakash, the last remaining member of an ISIL cell calling for lone wolf attacks in this country.

One week earlier in Syria, we also killed two more of ISIL's prominent facilitators of external attacks and recruiters of foreign fighters. Abu Sa’ad al-Sudani and his wife, Shadi Jabar Khalil Mohammed, both killed.

Last year in Syria, we killed Junaid Hussain, a central figure in recruiting ISIS sympathizers to carry out lone wolf attacks in the West. It was also Hussain who was responsible for releasing personally identifiable information of more than 1,000 U.S. military and government employees and who sought to inspire want-to-be jihadists to conduct attacks against us in DOD.

I am in no doubt and no one should have any doubt: those who threaten or incite harm against Americans will surely come to feel the long arm and the hard fist of justice. We will take decisive action against any ISIL member or leader planning to attack our country or encouraging others to do the same.

We undertake these operations kinetically, but also through our expanding Cyber Mission Force. While I can't discuss many of these efforts publicly, I can say that DOD cyber capabilities are being employed in Iraq and Syria to prevent the ISIL threat from this region homeland. We're using these tools to deny the ability of ISIL leadership to command and finance their forces and control their populations, to identify and locate ISIL cyber actors and undermine the ability of ISIL recruiters to inspire or direct Homegrown Violent Extremists.

We're also working to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters into and out of ISIL-controlled territory. Specifically, DOD is sharing what it collects from the battlefield with other domestic departments that are the leads for screening and watch-listing. For instance, when we collect fingerprints from an IED in Iraq or Syria, or personal information removed from terrorists, we include this information in our biometrics-enabled watch list, which is then shared with the relevant agencies across our government.

We're also fusing and sharing information and expertise across the international coalition to stem foreign fighter flows and help prevent attacks.

When I met with several Coalition-counterparts last week in Germany, including my colleague from Canada, I reviewed ongoing operations to support local forces working to close the Manbij area of Syria to ISIL, which is a critical transit point for terrorists planning to execute attacks outside Iraq and Syria. Together, we must close this last entry-exit area for foreign fighters into Europe and beyond once and for all.

Next, we're providing greater force protection for our troops and DOD civilians here at home. As we learned from the tragedy in Chattanooga last summer, ISIL has demonstrated a clear intent to target U.S. servicemembers and facilities, or at least inspire others to do so. Providing greater force protection for men and women serving today is one way we honor those servicemembers who lost their lives last August.

As part of our response to those events, we're stepping up protection at bases and at the thousands of off-base installations we operate, a mission which is under NORTHCOM's authority. We're putting in place stronger physical security systems, including stronger entry controls, better alarm systems, reinforced doors, and additional ways to safely exit our facilities.

We're also introducing a mass warning and notification capability to broadcast threats quickly and broadly, notifying DOD personnel within a 20-mile radius of a threat within minutes. That's a direct response to Chattanooga, where the killer targeted two facilities 11 miles apart within the span of 12 minutes.

Overall, we're investing an additional $80 million in force protection this year and an additional $100 million more over the next two years. At DOD, we're absolutely committed to strengthening and defending our people and facilities from potential threats of all kinds.

Part of our responsibility as a military is also to keep some of the gravest threats to our people and nation at the front of our minds. While we have seen no credible evidence of a WMD threat against the homeland by any extremist group, ISIL's use of chemical weapons in Iraq underscores the importance of constant monitoring of potential threats even remote ones.

This work also connects directly to another important part of NORTHCOM's mission, which involves providing support for partners across our government, including the FBI, to prepare for extreme threats and disasters.

In cases where the interests of the United States would be seriously threatened, the department maintains a unique readiness to provide capabilities such as airlift, communications, and logistics support to federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Just this month, DOD participated in a planned training exercise, NORTHCOM's VITAL ARCHER, working with the FBI as well as other domestic agencies to enhance our preparation and integration in responding to an incident involving WMD in the homeland.

The Department also stands ready to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks and disasters everywhere. The DOD chemical, radiological and nuclear response enterprise is comprised of National Guard and active duty forces, including 8,200 men and women under the command and control of NORTHCOM.  We will continue to train, plan and prepare for extreme circumstances when state response capabilities are exceeded and the lead federal agency requests and requires our support.

As we pursue a whole of nation, whole of government effort to protect the homeland, you, the men and women of NORTHCOM, are providing steadfast support to the Department of Homeland Security and FBI. The American people and your families, our families, can sleep soundly knowing that you and your colleagues across our government are awake to defend and protect them.

Keeping our people and nation safe and delivering ISIL a lasting defeat also depends on how effectively we work with our coalition partners. Of course, here at NORAD, our only by bi-national command, this issue comes naturally to many of you.

Whether in defeating ISIL or in defending our nation against other threats that reach across borders, our alliance with Canada is indispensable. The United States and Canada are working together every hour of every day to provide a more prosperous and secure future for the citizens of both our nations.

I also want to thank our Mexican partners for their determination to expand our continental defense partnership. Mexico has become a global exporter of security, both on this continent and beyond. I want to applaud Mexico for their growing defense relationship and also for continuing to ensure that common values and respect for human rights are the foundation of security efforts across the hemisphere and around the world.

Now, let me turn to the change of leadership for the Command that performs so much of the work I've been speaking about, change from one gifted Commander to another.

This Commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, Admiral Bill Gortney, has been instrumental in forging stronger coordination and deeper connections with both our Mexican and our Canadian neighbors.

For Bill Gortney, serving and defending this nation has been the cause of his life for the better part of four decades.  With his father, who was also a Naval officer and aviator, this is a commitment that runs deep in his veins. Still, Bill has said that growing up, he never intended to follow in the footsteps of his father.

That all changed the first time he stepped on an aircraft carrier and heard a powerful call to serve, and because Bill Gortney has followed that call with passion and commitment ever since, our Navy is stronger, our nation's more secure.

During his service as a Naval Aviator, he logged more than 5,000 piloting A-7s and F/A-18 Hornets. He made more than 1,200 carrier landings and flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And after accumulating a tremendous record of success as a pilot, he transitioned seamlessly to become one of the Navy's most successful sailor-statesmen.

With his work to bring a diverse collection of nations together to respond to piracy in the Indian Ocean, just to take one example, he leaves a lasting legacy.  By breaking down silos between the services and between partner navies, which included the Russians and the Chinese, Bill was at the center of building a formidable coalition.

When he began this work, piracy off the Horn of Africa was not only a growing scourge, it was a weight on the global economy and a threat to the rules-based international order. Today, the number of large cargo and container ships seized by pirates in the region can be counted on one hand.

Across continents and assignments, Bill and his wife Sherry have been a formidable team, building inclusive and welcoming communities wherever they have served. During two assignments in Bahrain, Bill and Sherry were critical in helping families cope with an impending separation when dependents were order to return home. When the order was lifted, and families returned, Bill and Sherry's hospitality were instrumental in rebuilding a strong sense of community there.

Several years ago, when Bill delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, Elon College, he spoke about what he had recently read on a plaque near the Statue of Liberty. They were the lines of another warrior statesman, an advocate for peace and freedom in the Americas, Jose Marti. The inscription read, and I quote, "Liberty costs a great price, and one must either resign oneself to live without it or decide to pay its price."

Admiral Gortney, you have long understood that the price of liberty is great. And over the course of your accomplished career, you've borne it with great skill and strength. On behalf of the department, you and Sherry have our deepest appreciation for your selfless service to our nation. Thank you, Bill.

And Bill, as you transition from this command, you can take comfort in knowing that NORAD and NORTHCOM are now in the hands of another proven strategic leader and warrior-diplomat, General Lori Robinson.

I recommended General Robinson to the president because she has a remarkable and complete set of proven experience: her strength as a strategic thinker and manager, which I saw first-hand during her time in the Pentagon when I worked with her closely; her political and military experience, most recently - and this is very important - in the critical Asia-Pacific region; and her ability to lead and command in high-tempo operational environments, while putting her people first in every assignment.

As a strategic thinker and joint force leader, General Robinson has proven her ability to manage complex operations and work with partners across theaters and domains. These abilities will serve our nation well as NORAD and NORTHCOM continue their vital contributions to the counter-ISIL campaign and defense of the homeland.

Now, General Robinson is an Air Force Weapons Officer, which means she has proven her mettle by passing through one of our military's most demanding crucibles. And though Lori passed through weapons school with flying colors, it was not only her individual success, but the shared determination she inspired among her teammates, they say, that left another lasting impression.

This ability to lead and inspire is an attribute she has carried with her to command roles in some of the most difficult and complex environments. General Robinson's success as an air battle manager, a role that requires conceptualizing combat operations in a fluid, three-dimensional space, and making split-second life-or-death decisions, is another tribute to her strength as a leader.  In one of the most high-pressure and high-stakes environments in our entire military enterprise, Lori thrived.

Part of her success as Air Battle Manager came from developing a deep knowledge of the different traditions and cultures among the different technical specialities within the Air Force. It was an experience where she learned to communicate up and down the chain of command and began to deepen her extensive political-military skills.

In her most recent tour as PACAF Commander, she demonstrated these capabilities over an area of responsibility covering nearly half the globe. She was instrumental in operationalizing our important rebalance to the Pacific, and in strengthening ties with air forces of some of our closest allies, including Japan, South Korea and Australia. And while there are many leaders who played a role in bringing the Indian Air Force back to Fed Flag, few were more instrumental than Lori Robinson.

Lori's ability to lead, inspire and command respect across our joint force reflects her understanding that no matter what the complexity of our platforms or the power of our technology, it's always our people who come first.

It's a value she shares with her husband, David, who's a former Thunderbird and a retired Major General in the Air Force Reserve. Lori and David are two leaders who appreciate personally the weight of all we ask our troops and their loved ones to carry. And for many families who experienced loss, their own strength and resilience have served as an inspiration.

General Robinson has described her philosophy of leadership simply as this: leaders should be humble, approachable and credible to those entrusted to their command. Today, she brings that spirit to the solemn responsibilities of NORAD and NORTHCOM and to her leadership of men and women whose success is vital to the defense of our homeland.

In the days to come, we cannot predict precisely how and when men and women of NORAD and NORTHCOM will be called forward to carry their mission, but we do know this. We know General Robinson will lead this team with certainty, clarity and with the full trust and confidence of me and the President.

We know that as our military works with partners across our government and across our continent, NORAD and NORTHCOM's efforts will be essential in providing security for our people and our nation.

And we know this with absolute certainty. The force General Robinson inherits is ready to execute its final responsibilities thanks to Admiral Gortney's leadership. To Admiral Gortney, to General Robinson, to all the men and women who have served under their strong and steady leadership, thank you.